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Former Paratrooper On What It Was Like To Serve With Bergdahl

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now we're going to hear from Jon Thurman. He's a former paratrooper who was serving with Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan in 2009, the year Bergdahl disappeared. Jon Thurman, thanks for joining us today.

JON THURMAN: Yeah, of course. Nice to talk to you.

SIEGEL: How well did you know Bergdahl, and what did you make of him?

THURMAN: He was more of an acquaintance. He was in a different platoon than I was. I was in third, and he was in second. He didn't really fit with the rest of us, to say the least.

SIEGEL: How so?

THURMAN: He just operated differently. He would go and prefer to spend his time with the Afghan National Police, where we would all kind of hang out together. And so yeah, he didn't quite fit with the rest of us.

SIEGEL: Yeah, well, take us back to when he disappeared. What did you and what did some of the other men and personnel think had happened?

THURMAN: Well, I knew right away. I was on my - on the way to the chow hall on FOB Sharana that morning, and we were getting ready to hand that outpost, which is Mest outpost, over to the Afghan national police. And I remember running into one of my friends who had worked in the tactical operations center, and he said to me on my way to the chow hall, somebody's missing. And the next thing I know, my radio's blowing up. They're saying, you know, everybody needs to get back. We need to go look for this person. And probably 10 minutes later, we found out that it was Bergdahl. And I thought, wait. I mean, I sort of know that guy. Why would somebody just walk off?

It wasn't until I started talking to some of the gentlemen in second platoon who knew him much better than I did that the pieces kind of started falling in line. They were telling me that he'd say things like, you know, look at those mountains out there; I'd really love to go out there and maybe be a mercenary. And then they started talking about him mailing his stuff back to the United States. And we started to get the picture of this being a premeditated action.

SIEGEL: Well, fast-forward a few years. Bergdahl's captors released him in 2014 in a prisoner exchange, and he went on to share his story. As he described it, he says that he left because he was trying to report leadership problems at your post. What did you make of that when you heard it?

THURMAN: If there were leadership problems, not a single other paratrooper that I served with saw them. I don't think there were. I thought that was a convenient excuse to try to veil what he said on Serial, in that he wanted to walk off on his own accord and do his own sort of Jason Bourne kind of thing.

SIEGEL: On Serial - you mean in the podcast Serial that focused on him?

THURMAN: Correct.

SIEGEL: He has now pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy - serious charges, could result in life in prison. Were you glad to hear that he'd made that decision, that he pleaded?

THURMAN: I was. I was. It saved us a lot of time in the trial process. We were glad that he owned up to what had happened and he didn't - you know, that it didn't have to waste time and resources because we all knew that he was guilty from the get-go.

You know, when you're deployed in a combat zone, you really begin to stop fighting for anything but each other. You know, you can word it however you want in your own head and say, OK, I'm fighting for the freedom of the United States; I'm fighting for the Afghan people. But when it comes down to it, you're fighting for each other. And because of that, it's a level of betrayal that I don't think I can articulate correctly because it's so intense, and it feels so violating that he would just walk off and stop fighting for us.

SIEGEL: Some of the phrases you've used to describe Bergdahl are he didn't fit in; he lived in his own private world. An Army board said that he suffered from a severe mental illness, from schizotypal personality disorder. And they said - one senior officer said that prison wouldn't be appropriate. Do you have any sympathy for him possibly having suffered from a mental illness?

THURMAN: I would have had he not said that he wanted to walk off and do his own kind of Jason Bourne thing. I mean, if he had delusions about what was going on in the unit - but I think he was just out for a little rip and to go out and do his own thing.

SIEGEL: If you could meet with him now, if you could talk with Bergdahl, what is it you'd want to say to him?

THURMAN: I don't think I'd say anything. Yeah, I just don't think I'd say anything. I wouldn't want to talk to him. I think some would want to know why. Some would want to hear it straight from him and have a conversation. But I honestly wouldn't waste my time. I've wasted enough time looking for him.

SIEGEL: That's Jon Thurman, who was serving with Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan at the time of Bergdahl's disappearance. Mr. Thurman, thanks for talking with us today.

THURMAN: Absolutely, Sir. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.